Cirque du Soleil's Umihiko Miya breaks through barriers with acrobatics

by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF CIRQUE DU SOLEIL - Totem, a journey into the evolution of mankind (see surrounding photos), will be the latest Cirque du Soleil show to visit PortlandSince April 2010, Umihiko “Umi” Miya has played the part of a monkey and frog thousands of times, leaping, flying, somersaulting on the high bars and loving every minute of it.

The 32-year-old gymnast from Tokyo leads the high-bar opening act in “Totem,” the Cirque du Soleil show that will make its Portland debut on March 27.

In addition to performing eight to 10 times per week on stage, Miya leads a team of five artists and supports them as they stretch the limits of their bodies and imagination.

And, “Totem” appears pretty imaginative. From the Cirque website: “Totem” traces the journey of humans from original amphibians to their ultimate desire to fly — it’s inspired by many founding myths, and somewhere between science and legend “Totem” explores the ties that bind man and other species.

Miya and many others do their share of acrobatics in the latest Cirque show to visit Portland.

The Tribune had a chance to catch up with Miya by phone recently, talking about how he got his start, how he joined up with Cirque du Soleil, and how the language of acrobatics is universal:

UMIHIKO MIYATribune: How did you first get into gymnastics? Monkeybars?

Miya: I was 5. I was busy with lots of sports: baseball, soccer, basketball, Japanese writing. When I was 12 I needed to decide if I would do gymnastics seriously or not. I decided yes. I was good at all the sports, but my gymnastics coach really recommended I do it. I was physically not that tall. My body size (5 feet 3) is good for gymnastics.

Tribune: You were close to being in the Olympics in gymnastics. What happened?

Miya: I really tried. ... I was one of the hopes. When I went to university, I was into more things: working, driving cars; (I was) a bit

lost. ... I wanted to forget gymnastics. I coached (gymnastics) and did international development, but needed something in my life challenging.

Tribune: So in 2009 you just sent in an audition tape for Cirque du Soleil and heard back a little sooner than you expected?

Miya: Yes. In one week I got a phone call. ... It’s not easy to get a position. I (showed) my choreographing, interviewed myself, gym skills. They were looking for my size and good high-bar skills. I was a pretty good fit.

Tribune: Ever get tired of doing the same thing over and over in every show?

Miya: I thought I could be, but I never got bored or tired.

Tribune: Don’t you get scared up there?

Miya: Not really. Still I’m challenging

myself, trying to learn new, bigger skills.

Tribune: After studying economics and politics at the university, you spent two years in Panama teaching gymnastics through a Japanese government program that partnered with the United Nations. You didn’t speak any Spanish, but you became fluent there. Is there something universal about gymnastics?

Miya: When I wanted to join international development,

I wanted to challenge what

I could do without language. ... Gymnastics worked to make good relationships between coaches, people, kids. I didn’t know how they could be impressed with this simple skill. Sometimes there was no clean water, no toilet. I taught gymnastics on the ground. But they were really excited.

Tribune: What’s your favorite stunt?

Miya: A toe chute somersault, the last trick of the act. There are two bars on stage, there’s a power trampoline underneath. I grab one bar, put my feet between my hands on the bar. I somersault halfway, release feet first, release hands, somersault forwards, catch another bar.

Tribune: Ever fall?

Miya: Not much.

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